I messed up.
For the first few weeks of our current situation, I’ve been referring to what teachers, schools, families and kids are going through as “online learning” or “distance learning” or “virtual learning” (note: you can see this verbiage in the resources I’ve curated)
While we are all doing some of that online/distance/virtual learning right now, it is not what this should be called.
This is emergency remote learning.
It was not planned for.
Most school’s curriculum was not crafted to be online or distance learning experiences. Most teachers and staff have not been trained in teaching online or through virtual tools.
Most kids and families have not had the opportunity to be prepared for this change in learning.
And yet, here we are, everyone doing their best to make this work.
But, when we call it online, distance, virtual learning we tend to make comparisons to those experiences that were planned for.
I completed my Master’s in Global and International Education in an online/distance learning cohort at Drexel University.
The program was planned that way, it was designed that way, and I (as a student) knew what I was signing up for.
It was still difficult to do, even as an adult who had access to all the appropriate technology and resources.
I teach online courses for the University of Pennsylvania GSE Penn Literacy Network. It still isn’t perfect and we have issues with each cohort, even after having taught this course online since 2016. I’m still making mistakes as an instructor who has planned for, tweaked, iterated, and constantly improved an online course for multiple years!
So, no, this isn’t easy, even when everything is planned and prepared for in advance.
In a matter of days, teachers and school leaders have had to take curriculum, resources, assessments, and lessons that were designed for an in-person (or at least blended) experience (and without any sustained training), turned it into a remote learning experience.
This is hard work, but it is the only option.
On top of this process, educators are dealing with their own families, friends, and loved ones. Those they may be in quarantine with, and those that they may be worried about during this pandemic.
The families of students we are working with are also facing uncertainty, anxiety, and medical concerns during this pandemic.
That is why this is not only “remote” learning, but “emergency remote learning”.
I was reminded of this (and my failure to acknowledge the difference) while preparing for our webinar for school leaders last night (here is the replay link if you’d like to watch) with George Couros and Katie Novak. In his most recent blog post, “Towards A New and Better Normal“, George explains:
I know many families are asking for routine and structure at this time, and I appreciate so many educators working with families to help them in any way that can. But I was also reminded that this is not merely schools moving “online.” The title of this article hit me when I read it; “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.”
I immediately read that article with fresh eyes about the experience. The following paragraphs put it all into perspective for me as an educator and dad of four kids:
Moving instruction online can enable the flexibility of teaching and learning anywhere, anytime, but the speed with which this move to online instruction is expected to happen is unprecedented and staggering. Although campus support personnel and teams are usually available to help faculty members learn about and implement online learning, these teams typically support a small pool of faculty interested in teaching online. In the present situation, these individuals and teams will not be able to offer the same level of support to all faculty in such a narrow preparation window. Faculty might feel like instructional MacGyvers, having to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances. No matter how clever a solution might be—and some very clever solutions are emerging—many instructors will understandably find this process stressful.
The temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction in these circumstances will be great…
Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise. These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format.
Researchers in educational technology, specifically in the subdiscipline of online and distance learning, have carefully defined terms over the years to distinguish between the highly variable design solutions that have been developed and implemented: distance learning, distributed learning, blended learning, online learning, mobile learning, and others. Yet an understanding of the important differences has mostly not diffused beyond the insular world of educational technology and instructional design researchers and professionals. Here, we want to offer an important discussion around the terminology and formally propose a specific term for the type of instruction being delivered in these pressing circumstances: emergency remote teaching.
I for one, am happy to see the distinction and use the term “emergency remote teaching”.
Yes, what we are doing right now has components of online learning.
It definitely is from a distance.
It is drawing upon the use of virtual learning tools and resources.
But, it is not the same as online learning as we know it.
We can learn from the folks who have been teaching online and distance learning, but even their experiences cannot truly provide a roadmap for emergency remote learning.
In our book, Empower, John Spencer and I make the case that there is no instructional manual (and that is ok):
The sooner we realize that there is no instructional manual for this situation, the sooner we can give each other grace to experiment, learn, and iterate to the best of our abilities in the worst of circumstances.
Thank you to all of the educators out there doing the hard work of emergency remote teaching, for all the right reasons, in the most uncertain of times.
As a parent, I appreciate you, and as a colleague, I am inspired by you.
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